By Joe Sugarman
The BSO’s performances this week of “Stayin’ Alive: One Night of the Bee Gees” at Strathmore and the Meyerhoff made us recall one of the least likely songs to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts. It was Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” and it topped the charts for a week in 1976. Can you imagine? Chalk it up to an emerging national craze and the creativity of a classically trained jingle writer.
The year was 1974, and as the story goes, Murphy, a musical prodigy of sorts who had studied jazz and classical piano since age four and later attended the Manhattan School of Music, was composing a disco-themed commercial for a client. Reportedly inspired by the success of The Toy’s “A Lover’s Concerto,” the girl group’s mid-1960s adaption of a Bach minuet, Murphy started trying to “disco-fy” other classics. He recorded several demos, while playing all the instruments, and set about trying to find a record label to release them. Every company thought he was nuts — except for one. New York’s tiny Private Stock Records encouraged Murphy to record his adaption of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, which he renamed “A Fifth of Beethoven” — likely a play on the slang term for a bottle of whisky. Private Stock released the song in 1976 under Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band. There was no “band,” but the song was huge, reaching No. 1 on Oct. 19, 1976. It was also included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from 1977, giving the single an extended life.
Murphy, meanwhile, recorded other disco-fied classical hits including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee entitled “Flight '76,” which reached No. 44 on the Hot 100. Not as successful were his recordings of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Ernesto Lecuona’s Malaguena, Ravel’s Bolero and this particularly cringe-worthy interpretation of Bach’s “Toccata and Funk in D minor.”
“A Fifth of Beethoven,” however, is generally regarded as one of the top hits from the disco era and was even listed as No. 94 on Billboard’s Greatest Songs of all time. Thirty years later, Robin Thicke sampled it heavily for his first hit single “When I Get You Alone” and apparently, even the North Koreans like it.
These days, Murphy enjoys success — and even won an Emmy — for his work as a composer for Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy” and its off-shoots, “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad.”
But, still, we wonder: What would Beethoven have thought of his disco-fied symphony?